Handling Greek and Latin Terms in Spanish Medical
Translation by Verónica Albin
Peter Ustinov once said that
Russia is like a screwed-up pill where the bitter part is on the
outside and the sugar coating is in the middle. The same holds
true for medical translation; once you get over the bitter
coating, you start to enjoy it.
Perhaps one of the most difficult hurdles to conquer is the
handling of Greek and Latin terms, for it is here that
translators new to the specialty often make assumptions which
prove disastrous. In this article I will first explain the
specific medical use for each of these two languages, and will
then red-flag a few key areas in this minefield horribilis.
Since Greek is the language of choice for pathology,
we expect to find this language in disease
Although there are plenty of exceptions,
Latin roots usually refer to a specific part of our anatomy and
Greek ones indicate that the part of the body is being studied or
that there is something wrong with it. Thus, the anatomical term
for the gut is intestinum (Latin), and the study of the
intestines is enterology (Greek).
Lets look at the Latin root for
breast mamm/o and its Greek counterpart mast/o.
Generally speaking, the Latin root mamm/o will be
found in terms which describe either the anatomy (e.g. mammary
gland) or a procedure done to a presumably healthy organ (e.g.
mammogram), and the Greek root mast/o will be found
whenever pathology or malignancy is encountered (e.g.
The vowel after the forward slash of the
root is known as the combining vowel. This vowel is kept between
two roots. Because of this, the study of the stomach
gastr/o and intestines enter/o is spelled
gastroenterology, not gastrenterology.
The root, or chain of roots, is always
followed by a suffix. Suffixes give us very useful information.
For example, the suffix -itis means there is inflammation;
-malacia means softening; and -gram or
-graphy indicate that a recording, image or tracing was
obtained. The combining vowel of a root is dropped when the
suffix begins with a vowel, but kept when it begins with a
consonant. Thus, a tumor (-oma) whose structure is
primarily of muscular (my/o) origin would be a
myoma, not a myooma.
Finally, this chain is sometimes preceded
by a prefix. Prefixes tell us, among other things, where
something is located (peri-, supra-); when something happens
(pre-, post-) or if something is excessive or deficient (hyper-,
hypo-). Unlike in English, Spanish prefixes are attached to the
word they modify. Thus, pre-eclampsia and post-op in Spanish
would be preeclampsia and postoperatorio (or
posquirúrgico). The only exception is the Spanish
prefix ex, which is separated from the term it modifies
(e.g. ex esposa). In addition, prefixes attached to a Latin term
should be Latin, and Greek ones should be Greek. For example, the
anatomical term tibia should be preceded by the Latin
prefix semi- (semitibial) and not by the Greek one hemi-.
Given that Latin is the language of choice
for anatomical nomenclature, one could incorrectly assume that
any anatomical Latin term found on an English document would
remain unchanged in translation. Two good examples of terms that
change drastically are the Latin medulla oblongata and
fibula which break all the rules and switch to Greek in Spanish:
bulbo raquídeo and peroné. In other
cases, a perfectly good Latin term used in English, such as
patella, changes to a different Latin-derived term in Spanish
rótula. Therefore, to avoid making mistakes, my
advice is not to translate ex capite (from the top of your head),
but to look up every Latin anatomical term before translating it.
In passing, let me mention that when
working from Spanish into English, many classical terms need to
be simplified and written in plain English. For example, the
Spanish nefropatía, derived from the Greek root for
kidney (nefr/o) and the suffix for disease (-patía) could
easily be rendered into English as nephropathy, but no physician
in this country ever uses such a term. Physicians simply say
kidney disease. In this same group we have, among
others, cefalea or cefalgia/headache;
pirosis/heartburn; and cardiopatías/heart
Since Greek is the language of choice for
pathology, we expect to find this language in disease
nomenclature. Interestingly, the Greek name of a disease-causing
organism or of a disease itself can be followed by either a Greek
or a Latin modifier. Two good examples are Helicobacter
pylori (or in its short form, H. pylori) and
With this we open yet another can of worms.
First, there is the issue of italics for foreign terms. By
convention, microorganisms are italicized, while illnesses are
not. In addition, the first term of an organisms name is
always capped, whereas the modifier is written in lowercase.
Thus, we would write either Chlamydia pneumoniae and
Staphylococcus aureus, or C. pneumoniae and S.
Next, we have to decide whether or not to
translate these names. Some of the very common organisms, and
therefore well-known to the general public, such as the
above-mentioned Staphylococcus aureus, do have a Spanish
version: estafilococo dorado. The less common ones do not.
Therefore, my advice is not to take anything for granted, look up
organisms in the standard sources such as Merck and Salvat, and
when in Rome, do as the Romans. However, if one is working on a
document which includes common and less common organisms,
translating some and not others not only looks absolutely awful,
but also reading becomes more difficult. If this is the case,
Id recommend leaving all of them in their original form.
If this werent confusing enough,
there is yet another thing to worry about: changes in spelling.
Unlike microorganisms, illnesses, such as polycythemia vera and
myasthenia gravis, are left in their classical form but are
written with Spanish spelling, i.e. policitemia vera, miastenia
gravis. When using Spanish spelling, substitute i for
y (poly/poli), y for i
(iatrogenic/yatrogénico), t for
th, f for ph, and so forth.
Mea culpa if these tips for translating
better than the hoi polloi taste a little bitter, but
remember that dulce quod utile: what is useful is sweet.